Meet the Moroccan-Ghanaian artist exploring black identity through surrealism

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

sunsets in marigold yellow and fuchsia pink; metallic colored skulls embedded in deserts of cotton candy sand. Silhouettes of panthers roam, whales soar in the azure skies, and hands clasped together, watched carefully by an all-seeing eye.

These are just some of the characteristic motifs in David Alabo’s surrealist artworks. Like the genre’s most famous pioneer, Salvador Dali, the Moroccan-Ghanaian artist’s work is a tapestry of symbols through which he explores themes of death, isolation and the future.

But while Dali worked with mediums such as oil paint, sketch and film, Alabo’s work emerges in a virtual reality space. The artist, currently based in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, uses 3D sculpting software, VR headsets and a range of digital editing tools to create his stunning images. It is an appropriate medium for his sci-fi imagery, in which African landscapes take on an otherworldly quality, with moons and planets looming in star-studded galaxies or faded dark skies.

Though he explores Black identity through these alternative, unconventional landscapes, his work isn’t about escapism, it’s about empowerment, Alabo said.

“Sometimes the nature of being a black person in this world can be a surreal experience in itself,” Alabo said. “I feel like it’s empowering to see a black person thrive in an unexplored place.”

Folklore and Future

While Alabo’s work spans genres, his art is often referred to as “Afrofuturist,” a creative style that blends a sci-fi aesthetic with history and fantasy. Marvel’s 2018 film Black Panther drew attention to the genre and sparked a keen interest in work like Alabo’s.

While he doesn’t reject the label, Alabo feels his work falls more into the surrealist category. “I’m not bound by conventional notions of what Afrofuturism or Afrosurrealism is because I’m in a position where the work can be surreal, but then the medium I’m working through it in can be futuristic,” he said .

“Sometimes the nature of being a black person in this world can be a surreal experience in itself.”

David Alabo, artist

Exploration of the subconscious and dreams, his preoccupation with myth and legend is another hallmark of Surrealism – but unlike the European artists who dominated the movement in the 20th century, Alabo focuses on African folklore rather than Greek and Roman Mythology.

“African culture, at least in Ghana, and the folklore and stories I heard as a kid are super surreal or abstract,” Alabo said. “They still serve as inspiration for my work.”

Divine Opulence was used by HBO in its virtual reality event for fans of the TV show Lovecraft Country. Credit: Courtesy of David Alabo

He sees his art as “a reinterpretation of African culture or heritage through new media” and pushes the boundaries of traditional art to create immersive experiences. Last year, HBO (owned by CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia) used Alabo’s work Divine Opulence in a virtual event for fans of the TV horror show Lovecraft Country. Using a VR headset, guests explored the artwork, which “had been translated into this whole world with music, dynamics and sound,” he said.

While many American Afro-Surrealist works focus on themes of colonialism, slavery and racism, such as Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, Alabo’s work is more striving. “I don’t want to do a disservice by not trying to incorporate that into art, but there are (other) artists who can,” he explained. “I envision futures or envision realities in which we thrive.”

But when exploring Black identity, these themes are often unavoidable, and Alabo says they are “common threads” that unite Afro-Surrealist work around the world. One of his works, “Justice,” was created in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests in 2020. The artwork’s symbolism — a black panther, a raised fist, a sword, a teardrop and a rose — captured the grief of black people community around the world together and marched forward in the fight against systemic racism.

"High Priestess" (left), designed for a range of tarot-inspired t-shirts, explores mysticism and spirituality. "Justice" (right) was formed in 2020 to offer solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests.

Designed for a range of tarot-inspired t-shirts, High Priestess (left) explores mysticism and spirituality. Justice (right) was formed in 2020 to offer solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests. Credit: David Alaba

While he still acknowledges these important issues, Alabo said he wants his work to walk the “fine line between respecting the past but also allowing it not to dictate your future or your perspective on the future.”

isolation and expulsion

The otherworldly landscapes Alabo creates in his art are inspired by the different countries he grew up in, he said. His father worked as a diplomat, and Alabo was born in Rome and spent his childhood in Italy, India and Russia.

“I feel like it’s a reflection of my navigating these weird places or places where I wouldn’t necessarily see another black person,” Alabo said.

“I think my art focuses on these themes of isolation, of reflection or of repression, because it’s difficult to be in a situation like that.”

David Alabo, artist

His art is full of small, lonely figures standing in vast, empty desert landscapes that reflect the geography of Morocco, where his mother is from. “I think my art revolves around these themes like isolation, reflection or repression because it’s difficult to be in a situation like that,” he added. “Art is like a gift for me to finally share my own weird upbringing.”

But this isolation is not necessarily negative. “Loneliness can be extremely empowering and a tool for positive change,” Alabo said. “If you really sit down and quench the noise, I feel like these can be our purest moments as humans.”

“Beyond the Digital”

In November 2021, Alabo fulfilled one of his longstanding ambitions with a solo exhibition at Nigeria’s international art fair ART X Lagos.

Covid-19 restrictions and travel disruptions meant that many viewers could only view the exhibition online, so Alabo expanded its physical exhibition with a digital one. By using the gyroscope function built into smartphones, he created a virtual reality experience that required no glasses.

After collaborating with several international brands such as Amsterdam streetwear label Daily Paper, Alabo hopes to collaborate with other Ghanaian designers. For his most recent project, he created a series of limited edition skateboard decks as part of a crowdfunding campaign for the Freedom Skate Park in Accra, which opened in December 2021.
David Alabo (pictured) holds one of his limited edition skateboard designs at the recently opened Freedom Skate Park in Accra, Ghana.

David Alabo (pictured) holds one of his limited edition skateboard designs at the recently opened Freedom Skate Park in Accra, Ghana. Credit: David Alaba

Another goal for 2022 is to create a studio space for “counterculture” artists in Accra, where he has lived for the past four years.

“The scene here, at least in Accra, is very much influenced by traditional portraiture. I think that’s really cool, but it doesn’t match the breadth and scope of the talent we have here,” he said. His vision is to create a space where artists can experiment with different tools, mediums and styles so that virtual reality artists like him have a physical community in which to work.

“That’s the plan for 2022,” he said, “to create something here that could live beyond digital.”

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